Wrong Direction Farm

Dig This

Five years ago I wrote about digging 1500 feet of trench for buried water lines.  It turns out that on the same exact day this year I was at it again, only this time we placed 1800 feet of pipe, five hydrants, and roughed in the plumbing for one water trough.  I’d gladly take credit for getting better in my old age, but the truth is that the kids are becoming more useful so they contributed to the efficiency of the work.

This project is long overdue, but getting weather and time and money to align has been challenging.  We now have a frost free water line running the entire length of the farm.  This will simplify our grazing rotation.  We’ve been making due with hundreds of feet of garden hose, but above ground hose is prone to breaking, kinking, and freezing, so we’re thrilled to have water available in or near all our pastures.

Allie screened crushed stone to make some drainage material for the frost free hydrants and for the tank drain valves.  The hydrants have small drain holes to allow the water to run out of the end of the standpipe after closing to prevent freeze damage.  Placing a load of stone around the base of each pipe creates an adequate drainage field.

AJ and Harry helped with backfilling the hydrants.  I needed one person to steady the hydrant and another person to steady the wooden bollards while I began the backfilling.  After the first foot or so was buried we were able to shovel together.  The bollards are essential because cattle love to scratch their necks on things, and a 1200 lb beast with an itch to scratch can work four feet of buried pipe out of the ground, breaking the connection and causing a gusher.  That’s a situation we’d prefer to avoid.

A Tornado Hit the Farm

This week we weathered a tornado.  What a way to get all hands on deck!  Everyone pulled together and we’ve managed to begin patching things up.

On Wednesday afternoon without much warning the skies went dark, hail pounded down, and the house began to quiver.  AJ and Harry were outside and I could see them pelting down the road to get into the house just ahead of the precipitation.

The storm ended after a few minutes, and I was puzzled as I looked out the rain-smeared windows because nothing seemed right.  The visual reference points were changed.  First I noticed the missing trees, then I realized one of the chicken coops wasn’t where I left it, and looking farther out back I was shocked that the turkey shelter and dog house were nowhere to be seen.

The turkey shelter is a 40 foot trailer, but the wind easily cartwheeled it over the fence and into the hedgerow.  The dog house is smashed up a few yards down the line.

Everyone scrambled out, changing into rain gear about as expeditiously as firefighters suiting up.  We found one of the chicken coops had been scooted across the ground, turned in a right angle from where it had been.  This is impressive, because a pickup truck strains to move this coop.  As with many tornados, there are often strange variations across short distances, with the chicken coop being pushed across the field while an empty cardboard box nearby remained unmoved.  We quickly worked to stabilize the chicken coop, and then moved on.

The hoops are crushed and the tarp is trashed, but the turkeys aren’t aesthetes, so they seemed equally happy with a ruined trailer so long as they had a place to roost.

We found the turkey shelter flattened and the dog house next to it, smashed to bits.  Both were thrown clear of their pasture and into the hedgerow.  Despite the deep gouges in the field indicating where the wreckage had cartwheeled past them, none of the turkeys were killed.  We brought the tractor and dragged the turkey shelter out, flipped it over, picked up the loose parts, and towed it back in with the birds to give them at least some shelter.  It looks frightful, but it does provide some protection from the rain.

Ash and cherry trees down along the edge of a field.

As we rushed to sort out the mess, I was pleased to see in one of the trees that had split in half a woodpecker busily eating ants from a newly-exposed rotten part of the trunk.  I suppose if I were writing this as a short story, this would be the place to use the woodpecker as a symbolic counterpoint against all of us busy humans working so hard to control damage, while the woodpecker just saw new opportunities to eat ants.  But I’m not writing a work of fiction, so I’ll refrain…

I cranked up the zoom to the maximum, so the woodpecker shows up fuzzier than I’d like.  Note that the sky had already transitioned to clear blue within a few minutes of the storm’s passage.

October on the Farm

We have been enjoying the beautiful early fall days. While installing new tin siding on the back of the shed I have been listening to a book by one of my favorite authors, Wallace Stegner.  He must have understood my joy at being outdoors these days when he wrote this appropriate line:

“It is such a morning as all the old remember and only the young belong in.”

Turkeys are reaching peak turkeyness, inflated and quivering and proud of their pendulous snoods and wattles.  The steers are beginning to grow out their thicker winter coats.  Shaggy mane mushrooms are emerging in the wood chips.  Everywhere there are wonderful displays of ash, basswood, cherry, sumac, and some of the maple trees changing colors while the hickory and oak leaves remain green.  A glorious October.

A tom turkey strutting, with extra blood going to his head to make his face and intense red and blue.  If he were not trying so hard to be impressive, he’d look just like the others in the background in their normal resting state with paler coloration.
A rainbow popped up on my way home from the hardware store yesterday.
Less glorious but still necessary, it was time (or past time) to put tin over the worn out siding on the back of the shed.

Just one more quote I read this week, not apropos of anything, but an irresistible line to share.  It comes from Ivan Turgenev, but I got it by way of Stegner:  “A system is like the tail of truth, but truth is like a lizard; it leaves its tail in your fingers and runs away knowing full well that it will grow a new one in a twinkling.”

Let Them Eat Rocks

Visitors to the farm are sometimes surprised to learn that we feed our chickens and turkeys rocks. In the case of turkeys, a lot of rocks.

Many birds use rocks as a digestive aid. This arrangement makes sense because birds lack teeth for chewing, so anything that can’t be broken down by pecking or clawing goes down the hatch whole. Rocks collect in a bird’s gizzard and they are used to mill food into smaller pieces for more thorough extraction of nutrients. Over time the rocks (technical term is gastroliths for any stone used in digestive tracts) wear down and pass out of the gizzard requiring replacement.

Grit for the older birds on left, starter size on right.

We start our chicks on tiny bits of crushed granite the size of coarse sand. As they grow, we graduate them to larger dimensions. I’m not certain what would be the maximum size stone a turkey could swallow, but I have watched them eating down pieces larger than a half inch square. For the smaller grit varieties we purchase a specially screened stone chip, but for the older birds we just use bulk crushed stone (DOT size 1 or 1A) we buy by the dump truck load from a quarry. At the end of the season, any leftover material gets spread out on the lane for road top dressing, so it is useful one way or the other.

At this point in the early fall when the turkeys are reaching maturity, it seems like I’m always filling up their grit tub. We serve up nearly a half pound of grit per turkey each week. They are more excited for a fresh delivery of crushed stone than they are for a refill of feed, all crowding round to get a bellyful of rock.

WDF Beef and Water

Once when selling at a farmers’ market, a customer told me she felt particularly conflicted about purchasing beef because of the water it wastes. Indeed, depending on the source of your facts, you can find shocking statistics stating that beef wastes between 500 and 2500 gallons per pound of meat, so it isn’t surprising that she was so troubled. This horrific waste is a favorite argument cited by those who’d wish to convince others to stop eating beef.

I’d like to present my reasons for positing that Wrong Direction Farm beef doesn’t waste water. I’ll only address my specific context. I can’t speak for other farms, or for the circumstances in other climates. I’m no expert in water usage for growing grain, nuts, fruit, or vegetables, so I can’t authoritatively point to other agricultural practices for comparison. I’ll just stick with what I know well, my farm.

As an establishing point: what is wasted water and why does it matter? Water waste results from disruption of the water cycle. Water can be wasted by removing it from a location and not replacing it (such as drawing water from a well and then flushing it into a waterway rather than letting it infiltrate back through the soil into the well). Water can also be wasted by polluting it, rendering future uses of it harmful. Waste has turned critical in places where municipal water supplies and privates wells are running dry as subterranean water levels drop. In some locations this results in dry wells as the cost to dig deeper becomes prohibitive. Elsewhere, saltwater is intruding into depleted aquifers and ruining the fresh water supply. Declining water tables even cause subsidence at the surface as underground pore spaces collapse. (Side note: for a particularly perverse twist, follow the story of how cheap solar power is helping irrigate bumper crops of opium in Afghanistan, while rapidly destroying their water supply.) Undeniably, water waste is a serious issue for communities throughout the world.

Every drop of water used by our farm is directly harvested as rainwater. Under the house we have an old cistern to collect runoff from the roof of the house and the shed behind it. In the back of the farm we have a pond to collect rainwater at the bottom of a long sloping field. All of our fields, both the pastures and the fields cut for hay are watered by rainfall, with no irrigation from wells or aquifers. So at the source, our water use is not depleting any groundwater reserves.

Naturally, soon after the cattle drink they urinate it back out. Because the herd is never concentrated in numbers that exceed the carrying capacity of the land, urine is distributed in volumes the soil can easily absorb. Soil bacteria are able to synthesize it into nitrogen-rich fertilizer. We constantly move the cattle throughout the farm, preventing any one one area from becoming supersaturated, thus preventing wastage from water becoming polluted.

And about the water in the pond… As it sits there, it isn’t a passive rainwater storage tank. It is active. The pond is full of fish, snails, frogs, and turtles. Bees fly over from the hives next door to drink. Swallows and killdeer visit each day. Herons hunt in the reeds. A pair of geese visits each spring to lay eggs. Migrating flocks of ducks stop for a rest. Deer and coyotes drop by for a drink. And we swim in it on hot summer evenings. By digging this pond, we’ve been able to create new wildlife habitat and to diversify the local ecosystem.

Baby turtle out by the pond

Are there beef products that squander thousands of gallons per pound of meat? That absolute worst case scenario probably exists somewhere. But that certainly isn’t the situation here. The most you can say is that we temporarily divert the water through our cattle.

You can take a bite out of a Wrong Direction Farm steak or burger or brisket and enjoy it for the taste and satisfaction you find in eating it.  But if you also need some ecological reassurance about the wider effects of the meal, then I can provide that too.

Just be sure not to waste water when you are washing the dishes afterwards.

Solar Pump Station

There is a curious ineluctability that simple solutions are difficult to achieve. After four years of tinkering, I am finally satisfied that I have a working solar water pumping station.

Most of the farm is downhill from our pond, so we can siphon our water to the cattle and the poultry without using any power. But there are a few fields at the same elevation as the pond, and for those we need to pump water.

Over the years I’ve gone through five different pumps, four charge controllers, and two sets of panels. One of the charge controllers caught on fire, one was defective out of the box. Some of the early pumps were undersized for the flow required, and when I found larger pumps capable of supporting higher flow, I had to upgrade the solar array and the battery bank from 12 volts to 24 volts.

Not all has been wasted in the progress toward building the pumping station. Several of the old 12 volt components are in use elsewhere on the farm. I’ve learned a few technical details about solar systems, so there is some imputed worth there.  But perhaps the most valuable and least quantifiable benefit is the appreciation I have for having water flowing when and where I need it. There’s always an underpinning of true and simple good, quite apart from complex moral philosophy, in completing a project satisfactorily. It is the good of making a meal, or building a bookshelf, or fixing the brakes. We find certitude in tasks that stand for themselves.

Wildlife Sightings

Sharing two new wildlife sightings. Actually there was a third, a striking godwit out by the pond, but the photos were too fuzzy. Yogi Berra was right, “You can observe a lot by just watching.”

Walking stick insects mating in the back woods. They were at it for hours.
We now have at least two grouse living in the low lying pasture near the chicken shelters.

The Fencing Project Pallet

One of the persistent challenges for our type of farming is maintaining some organization in the chaos of tools and supplies.  Everyone who knows me knows that I’ve never been good at keeping things tidy.  My workshop is a disaster.  But I’ve made a baby step of improvement, and just that incremental difference makes me feel like there’s hope for future improvements.

About a month ago I tackled the fencing supplies.  This includes a half dozen spools of wire, spinning jennys, insulators, staples, tensioners, and an assortment of both common and specialized tools.  This collection took up a large shelf plus several overflowing totes on the floor, roughly about a 4×6 footprint in the garage.  Not only was the collection unwieldy, but it required a lot of time and effort to carry everything into the back of the truck whenever I was doing fencing work.  And it seemed that whenever I was out doing a fence installation or repair job, I’d discover I was missing a tool.

I realized the solution to my storage, organization, and accessibility problems could be found by building a small shed capable of storing my entire fencing collection and all the basic tools.  It is mounted on a pallet so I can move the entire unit with the tractor out to whatever location I’m working.  If I need to leave a job halfway done, all the supplies can remain in the field without fear of rain or snow.  And I can reclaim that little corner of the garage shop space.

Everything fits!  Actually, I was able to further organize the top shelf so there’s a little extra room in there now.

I’ve been amazed at the improvements made by such a small change.  I don’t dread doing fencing repairs anymore.  It is making me wonder what other sorts of modular project pallets I should build next.   A pallet for masonry supplies and another for forestry seem like good candidates.  Whatever I end up doing, I’ve been encouraged by taking a small action against what felt like intractable project clutter.  There is hope!

Hitched up and ready to go.

Guard Geese

We raised some Brown Chinese geese this year because we heard that they can be effective guards for other birds.  I’m not sure that was a great idea.

Last year we had some predation losses among our young turkeys due to a persistent owl.  Eventually the turkeys outgrew the owl, but for a few weeks the owl would kill one turkey any night I didn’t sit out there.  Needless to say, it was a terrible experience for the turkeys and for me, but I suppose a great year for the owl.

The problem is that we also added a trained Maremma livestock guardian dog to the farm this year.  And this leads to guardian conflicts, where the geese and the dog both try to do their guard activities to the detriment of the other.  The geese repel predators by being endlessly meddling and loud.  The dog prefers to be orderly and to reserve her aggression for real threats.  Hence the geese manage to protect the turkeys while also pestering them, which causes the dog to chase them away.  And since geese never take a hint, they just circle right back moments later causing the dog to perpetually chase the geese.

Here comes the goose patrol.

Despite the chaos caused by the combination of geese and dog, we have only lost one turkey to predators this year (and that was the night that neither the dog nor the geese were stationed out by the turkeys).  So they are doing their job.  But I think next year I’ll just stick with the dog unless I can figure out a way to assign the geese in some other guard duty on another part of the farm.

Goose up close.

Tall Grass Carbon Capture

In recent years I’ve come to appreciate the value of grazing chickens and turkeys on taller grass.  My old thinking was that shorter grass would be more digestible and more accessible to the birds.  But now I prefer more mature pastures.

With our chicken shelters, we find that the rubber conveyor belt flaps on the leading edge are sufficient to knock down tall grass and to lay it out as a nice mat underfoot for the chickens as we move the shelters.  All that lignified, high-carbon grass acts as great bedding for the chickens, and they still spend plenty of time eating the tender leaf tips that are now right at ground level.  Interestingly, these taller pastures recover more quickly than shorter pastures.

The turkeys grow big enough that they bulldoze their way through the pastures, matting things down naturally.  Since turkeys are better grazers than chickens, they carefully select leaves from all parts of the plants in their pasture.  They appear to especially enjoy the mix of red clover, milkweed, and burdock that thrive in these pastures.

This grass was over three feet tall, but once knocked down it provides a soft, cozy bedding for these young chickens just brought out onto pasture.
This grass was over three feet tall, but once knocked down it provides a soft, cozy bedding for these young chickens just brought out onto pasture.

For the United States this way of raising chickens and turkeys is unusual and rare, but we’re really tapping into something that is as old as the world’s grasslands, where small animals and bigger, heavier herbivores (cattle in our case) periodically eat and trample their way across carbon-rich tall grasses, leaving a mat of flattened grass and manure.  Because of the foot traffic pressing the grass into contact with the dirt and helped by the biological inoculation of the manure, this mat is quickly incorporated into the topsoil, increasing the soil organic matter (carbon sequestration) and providing an ever-deepening layer of topsoil capable of growing more greenery.

The turkeys have no problem moving through knee high pastures.  It does slow us down as we set up the temporary fences, but the birds just crash their way through the grass.
The turkeys have no problem moving through knee high pastures. It does slow us down as we set up the temporary fences, but the birds just crash their way through the grass.